Announcements, Observations, and Promissory Notes (updated)
The Stanton Lectures, Gorillas and Groundhogs, Gerald McDermott’s “phantom quotes”, Viktor Orbán’s racism and its “Christian” apologists, and more...
Another somewhat diffuse posting this week, but only so as to prepare the way for things to come.
1) The Stanton Lectures 2023-2024: The Stanton Lectures in Philosophy of Religion are an annual event hosted by the University of Cambridge School of Divinity, typically delivered in their entirety during one of the three full terms that constitute the academic year (Michaelmas, Lent, and Easter, if they still go by the names they had when I was a student there). The lecture series was endowed (by the Stanton Fund) more than a century ago. It has, over the years, featured some very impressive scholars. Despite which, I have been invited to be the Stanton Lecturer for the academic year 2023-2024. I have, of course, accepted. At present, I think I am likely to choose to deliver the lectures in the Lent term. They will be streamed live, I am told, and I imagine will be available online thereafter. In any event, it is an honor for which I am properly grateful; and I already know what my topic will be.
2) “Books for a Very Long Journey” reaches 100: I see that my running list of obscure (or relatively obscure, or obscure-ish) book-recommendations will, with the next installment, reach a hundred entries (not a hundred titles, that is, since a few of those entries have included more than one book). I should also note that one or two readers have requested a list of books perhaps slightly less menacingly exotic than I usually provide. (I confess my tastes sometimes run toward the rarefied, though I stoutly maintain that I have suggested no book I do not believe to offer some kind of pleasure for the open-minded reader.) In any event, keeping both the special occasion and that heart-rending request in mind, I shall devote my next installment in the series to books so purely entertaining that one need not suffer from any of my peculiarities of sensibility to enjoy them. I shall even include five children’s books.
3) Music for a While: This will be the title of a new series of articles, which will henceforth (or, at least, for a time) share the place in the rotation currently occupied by Books for a Very Long Journey. This is not because there is any dearth of titles that I want to include in the latter. I have, however, been asked by various readers, on about two dozen occasions now, to consider undertaking something along the same lines for pieces of music. Just as with my book lists, I shall try to avoid the obvious; Bach and Mozart and Beethoven (etc.) are likely to make few appearances on the list, since I assume no one really needs to be told to listen to them. And, also just as with my book lists, I shall choose nothing I do not truly love. The title of the series comes from John Dryden’s Oedipus, A Tragedy, written in 1678—or, really, from Dryden as set to the incidental music Henry Purcell composed for the play in 1692, which included an especially magnificent aria:
Music for a while Shall all your cares beguile: Wond’ring how your pains were eas’d And disdaining to be pleas’d Till Alecto free the dead From their eternal bands, Till the snakes drop from her head, And the whip from out her hands.
It is one of Purcell’s loveliest arias, in fact—perhaps his second loveliest, surpassed only by Dido’s lament, “When I am laid to rest” (which is, of course, among the most beautiful passages of vocal music ever composed by anybody). In any event, I hope the series proves a great success.
4) Pia Ignorantia: I should like—well, not really “like”—to return briefly to the violently inaccurate “review” of Tradition and Apocalypse that Gerald McDermott wrote for the online version of First Things and that appeared there a little more than a week back.
One aspect of the article that I did not bother to mention in my initial response was its apparent use (at least, in its original version) of one of the more dastardly tactics employed by dishonest reviewers: “phantom quotes”—which is to say, quotation marks placed around some seemingly damning phrase in order to give the impression that it was drawn from the book under review when in fact it was not. In the original version of the review, McDermott wrote:
Following in that modern tradition of scholars who imagine they have discovered the true meaning of the Bible for the first time, Hart tells us that Christians have failed to see that the “true Eden story” has nothing to do with a fall, original sin, or diabolical interference.
Now, as it happens, everything in that sentence is confused; but the quotation marks are, in addition, mendacious. When a reader (the estimable and taciturn Henry Wallis) wrote to the journal and pointed out that the phrase “true Eden story” appears nowhere in the text of the book, First Things discreetly amended the sentence, but of course (being First Things) did not issue an apology. The sentence now reads:
Following in that modern tradition of scholars who imagine that they have discovered the true meaning of the Bible for the first time, Hart tells us that Christians have failed to see that the original tale of the “narrative of Eden” has nothing to do with a fall, original sin, or diabolical interference.
That is better, I suppose, in that the most flagrant sign of deceitfulness has been expunged; but what remains is still absurd. I say absolutely nothing in the book about any single “true meaning” of the Eden narrative; I report only how that narrative explicitly reads when confined to the purely literal level, without spiritual (that is, allegorical) supplement. True, at that level the story most definitely does not concern the contagion of original sin and certainly there is nothing in it about the devil (of whom the original authors had no concept whatsoever); those are later theological uses of the tale. At the purely diegetic level, the snake is only a snake, who truthfully tells Eve that she and Adam have been misled so as to prevent them from eating fruit from the trees of the gods, thereby becoming gods themselves; and this indiscretion on his part costs him his feet. But neither in Tradition and Apocalypse nor anywhere else have I offered what any competent scholar of the Hebrew Bible or Septuagint would mistake for a novel reading of the text; nor do I anywhere suggest I have discovered something hitherto hidden from the eyes of the devout. I am reporting nothing that has not been remarked since late antiquity, even by faithful Christian and Jewish exegetes. It is not without cause that Gregory of Nyssa cautioned against taking all the tales of the Bible as accounts of actual events; anyone who tries to do so, he remarked, will often find only unintelligible myths. Nor is it without cause that a robustly allegorical reading was regularly applied to the Jewish Bible by Jewish theologians and philosophers of late antiquity, like Philo of Alexandria and the Apostle Paul. But that scarcely matters here.
What is truly stunning about McDermott’s mockery is the sheer depth of ignorance it exposes—ignorance, that is, not of any arcane modern scholarship on the texts, but of the explicit narrative recorded in the texts themselves. The Second Temple redactors of the scriptures made no attempt to veil the original story behind some expurgated alternative version. They left the most primitive form of the story more or less intact at that point. I tend to think this was not because they were inattentive, but rather because they were not fundamentalist literalists, and lived in an epoch in which spiritual exegesis was a long practiced art. Whatever the case—well: “Then YHVH said, ‘Look, the Adam has become like one of us, knowing good and bad; now, therefore, so that he does not stretch out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever [or unto an age]...’—and thus YHVH drove him out of the Garden of Eden to till the soil from which he had been extracted.” (Gen. 3:22-23)
Much the same can be said of the surprising ignorance McDermott also exhibits in his reaction to my remarks on Arius (which somehow he mistakes for a defense of Arianism against Nicene theology, rather than, as is in fact the case, the reverse). He seems shockingly unaware of how widespread and venerable the theological tradition in which Arius and his many allies and successors had been formed was, and of how novel to their ears the formulations favored by the Nicene party (especially the term homoousios) necessarily would have sounded. He imagines that I have said something wildly unprecedented about the fourth century councils, even though he could find much the same information in the books of, say, J.N.D. Kelly or Jaroslav Pelikan. He also oddly misses the central point of my argument, which is that Arius, Eunomius, and many others were clinging obstinately to a vision of their faith that, however long established, was vastly inadequate to the full depth of the mystery of that faith, while the Nicene party’s language, for all its novelty, expressed a far fuller understanding of the essence and “antecedent finality” (Blondel) of the Christian proclamation.
McDermott is hardly unique among putatively trained theologians, however. I have encountered many others in the guild who are similarly unacquainted with immense and vitally important territories within their discipline (biblical studies, early Church studies, patristic literature, doctrinal history, and so forth). As I have said, I am not much bothered by McDermott’s accusing me of heterodoxy, even if I do find it amusing to hear such accusations made by an Evangelical (I mean, precisely what authority is he invoking when he uses that word?). I am bothered, however, by the utter disarray in the current state of theological education that his review makes depressingly obvious.
Anyway, I shall be writing two articles (at least). One will concern the fragmentation of theological learning among theologians; the other will concern scripture and allegorical readings. In preparation for the second of these (which, in fact, I may write first, or write in two parts if the spirit is willing), I shall be re-issuing a short article of mine form a few years back entitled “Ad Litteram” (where it originally appeared, I cannot for the life of me recall).
5) The Full Interview: You may recall the snippets I released from Steven HAuse’s most recent long interview with me on various topics (though principally on the nature of free will). Some readers have asked whether the entire recording will be made available. Indeed, it will—here, to be precise, gloriously unedited and devoid of all decent production values. It will appear in a few days.
6) “I’m shocked—shocked!—to find that racism is going on in here!”: The contemptibly evil thug, corrupt politician, autocrat, economic incompetent, persecutor of refugees, and racist Viktor Orbán, prime minster of Hungary, caused something of a stir on July 24th of this year when he indiscreetly let more of his inner swastika show than he usually tends to do in public.
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